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Albanese’s referendum has done much harm

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese… “The fact Albanese had the best of intentions is, unfortunately, irrelevant. This wouldn’t be the first disaster coming from a good heart.” (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

Anthony Albanese had good motives but his referendum has done much harm, says political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.

THE National Anti-Corruption Commission the other day issued its weekly statement about its work program. The government legislated for the NACC late last year, it began operations on July 1, and it’s now going full steam.

What if Anthony Albanese had taken the same approach to the Voice? The Senate would have passed the legislation. The Voice could be operating right now.

Instead, the Voice is dead and reconciliation is, at least for the moment, a wasteland. In medicine they say “do no harm”. Albanese was well motivated, but a great deal of harm has been done.

The prime minister and others will say, the indigenous people wanted a Voice in the constitution, not simply a legislated Voice. How could he ignore that, when he made his pre-election promise to pursue the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full?

It sounds a compelling argument. Except when you consider the result. Instead of getting something, the outcome has been to achieve nothing.

The destruction of the Voice has been a bipartisan saga over many years, since the Uluru Statement was put out in 2017. The Turnbull government tried to strangle it at birth by wrongly describing it as a “third chamber” of parliament (Malcolm Turnbull later changed his mind). The Morrison government rejected a constitutional Voice and never got around to a legislated one. Finally, the Albanese government has blown it out of the water.

The fact Albanese had the best of intentions is, unfortunately, irrelevant. This wouldn’t be the first disaster coming from a good heart.

Given that around six in 10 people voted “no”, former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson is almost certainly right when he said this week: “There was never a time when there was a glimmer of hope this could get through”.

That’s regardless of the early positive polling, when the debate hadn’t started in earnest.

Australians almost never want to change the constitution, and many would not countenance a proposal that lacked enough detail and accorded one section of the community a particular constitutional place.

To blame lack of bipartisanship, mis/disinformation, and racism is kidding ourselves. The margin was too wide.

To think Peter Dutton’s support could have swung things is a very long stretch. The conservatives would have been divided, whatever Dutton did.

And yes, there was misleading information and conspiracy theories flying around. But it’s insulting to suggest that so many voters were just duped.

Kos Samaras is a director of RedBridge, a political consultancy firm that undertakes research, including deep dives to tap people’s attitudes. Samaras is no right winger – he’s a former Labor operative, and a declared “yes” voter. His views on the intense focus on disinformation are worth thinking about.

He tweeted this week:

“Why do some fixate on disinformation when digesting election results?

“1. It avoids self-reflection 2. It assumes everyone is interested in politics 3. It confirms a societal bias that people who do not agree with you are stupid, especially poorer folk 4. Some MPs, some media and the staffer class live separated lives from the lived experience of Australians. It helps to ignore this reality 5. It ignores the real reason disinformation works. It is believed if it aligns with a person’s voting intention and existing biases 6. It avoids having to alter campaign approaches that may force you to empower people who are culturally different 7. It helps with the sudden realisation that you belong to a minority.

“The fixation on disinformation also guarantees repeating the same mistakes next time.”

The Albanese government has legislation on the go to crack down on online “misinformation and disinformation”. But, as critics have pointed out, including constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey, a strong backer of the Voice, this carries significant dangers for freedom of speech. In fighting one problem, we should beware of creating another.

Racism reared its head during the campaign, and that was abhorrent. What proportion of votes racism drove, however, is another matter.

Racism should be always called out. Equally, it should not be exaggerated in the wake of this defeat. To explain the result as fundamentally the product of a racist Australia is likely to add to the despair some indigenous people are feeling.

A central reason the indigenous backers of the Voice campaign wanted it in the constitution was so a future (conservative) government could not abolish it. That insistence was understandable but had two flaws.

First, the plan had parliament possessing wide powers over the body’s structure, so a later government could have emasculated it to the point of near extinction.

The second flaw was this. If making the “perfect” (constitutional status) the enemy of the “good” (legislated only) was likely to end up where we are now, wouldn’t it have been better just to pursue the “good”?

Albanese apparently thought he could deliver the perfect, which is extraordinary for a politician with his experience. But plenty around him must have known this was unlikely and should have persuaded him to confront reality. And then he should have been straight with indigenous leaders about what could be achieved. Instead he seemed almost intimidated by some of them.

Indigenous leaders are observing a week of media silence and contemplation. They too must feel the responsibility they carry.

Albanese says he is waiting to be advised by indigenous people on where to from now. When the government said in the campaign it had no plan B, that seems to have been the case. It has not clarified its post-referendum position on treaty and truth-telling.

Given a fractious and difficult parliamentary sitting week, and internal Labor tensions over the Middle East crisis, the prime minister would be glad of the official indigenous silence.

Politically, Albanese and the government want to move on quickly to other issues. Asked by a backbencher at Tuesday’s caucus meeting what they should say to constituents in the wake of the loss, the prime minister reeled off a list of the government’s achievements in education, health, employment and other areas.

On Thursday, the government issued a release announcing $30.8 million for health research “that listens to indigenous communities”. It said the 26 research projects “have all involved First Nations people from the start, listening to the lived experience of people at every stage”.

There are a lot of indigenous voices out there: when it regroups, the government will need to step up its efforts to work more effectively with them. In one encouraging result in a bleak week, an Essential poll reported more than six in 10 people had agreed if the referendum failed the government should continue to work with First Nations communities to find solutions to the issues they face.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra. This article is republished from The Conversation. 

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Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan

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3 Responses to Albanese’s referendum has done much harm

jennifer manson says: 20 October 2023 at 2:36 pm

No-one seems to be focussing on the fact that 40% of the population voted for the voice. That is 40% voting for the 3% which is a significant amount of support.

Of the 60% who voted against the voice, only some of those are racist. Many did not understand the Constitution or how it works, so were not sure of the consequences of a yes vote. Some did not care as they did not see this as relevant to them, or they were struggling with their own issues and needed to focus on them. No-one wanted to lose anything from their vote, yet these fears were there for many.

When unsure people go for the status quo, as fear of loss is greater than confidence and enthusiasm for potential gain (whether financial or other) as behavioural economics and psychology have shown. That is, unless they believe the gain is a sure thing and it carries little risk of harm. This was not demonstrated in the voice debate, as it needed to be in the beginning, before people committed to a course of action.

johnny says: 20 October 2023 at 5:20 pm

Jennifer says “Many did not understand the Constitution or how it works, so were not sure of the consequences of a yes vote.”

No Jennifer, many No voters do understand exactly how the Constitution and High Court challenges work, and they also understand how race based policies work, most can also tell when they are being bluffed by politicians and special interest racial groups. Which is exactly why the majority of intelligent people voted No.

The fact that most Yes voters still cannot understand that they are in fact racist by their choice to vote Yes is simply mind blowing to anyone capable of critical thinking.

The ALP knowingly chose to destroy the referendum, because there was never a chance of it being approved. Never. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply arrogant or ignorant of both history and how referendums work.

In pretending to help the ALP have simply made things much worse for everyone.

The sooner there is a federal audit into indigenous funding, the sooner things can be fixed. Anyone that doesn’t support that has something to hide.

All Australians deserve to be treated equally, and supported based on need not race.

David says: 25 October 2023 at 3:58 pm

Sadly this article echoes the failings of the Yes campaigns. It is written as though the Yes campaign was actually right and Australians got it wrong. 6 to 4 say its the other way around. Enshrining a voice in parliament was never a good idea given a long history of such bodies failing to achieve their objectives or justify the money being spent. The last thing Australia and, more importantly, the disadvantaged Indigenous people needed was to risk enshrining another failure. Who in their right mind would vote for a group of people who thought the best use of their power was to seek more power?

It is worth noting these people have come out against an investigation into child abuse. Why in anyone’s name would you turn down such an offer? If there is not an abuse problem then what better way to say to Australia, we don’t have a problem and everything being said was mis/disinformation. Opposing the Royal Commission has just highlighted the thought that there is something to hide and the party most guilty of mis/disinformation is the Yes campaign. At least 60% of Australia now probably believe all the politicians who blocked the investigation are actively hiding child abuse.

The No campaign did rely on misinformation. Unfortunately for the Yes campaign that information came for the Yes campaign and the No campaign just had to point to it and ask the question, do you believe that ?


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